Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Unemployment Diary: Don't Wish You Were Here

Since I was laid off and am now counted among the 10% unemployed in the U.S., I've found that there are both good points and bad to not being employed full time. While I miss the bit of security the money gave us, I realize now that it was just an illusion. Dang, that sounds cynical. But true. We were barely hanging on to our spot in the American Middle Class when The Disaster struck. (Please note that I'm using the word disaster here with a smattering of irony. Being laid off is financially taxing, but it's been a gift in a way, too. I've been able to think about what kinds of work I want to do.)

We're in the process of making changes to improve our situation. Those things include, but are not limited to, the following verbs: cutting, reducing, canceling, bartering, accepting, managing, trimming, couponing, watching, budgeting, switching off, refiling, rethinking, repurposing, hanging, discussing, teaching, learning, relearning, valuing, sorting, exploring and looking.

While I search for my next job (assuming there's one out there), write, and hausfrau my days away, I want to use this space to write about what it's really like to be part of the New Poor. It's an idea that the news organizations seem to be picking up on. People who've been poor, are poor and assume they will always be poor must be thinking "Seriously? Now being poor is newsworthy?" It is sad commentary on our society that the spotlight seems to be aimed at the plights of those who had and lost instead of those who never had to begin with.

So here we are. We can be counted in that number of people who've lost their slippery grip on the Middle Class. We're kind of free falling at the moment, but we expect a landing (hard? soft?) sooner rather than later. Part one appears to require about six months. Details on that will have to come later.

But the point of this series of posts isn't to gain sympathy. I don't want to hear any
hang in theres or it's going to be okay or any advice for finding jobs. Golly, that sounds bitchy, but what I'm attempting to do here is to show in snapshots of real life what happens after you find you've dropped over that metaphorical edge. It seems to me that stories about the New Poor focus on some of the more extreme situations - people long out of work, sick, without health insurance......Well, we're not extreme. We're not homeless yet. We have a car in decent working order. I have my unemployment insurance and MathMan is still working and we have his health, dental and vision benefits on which to rely. Everyone is healthy.

The changes in our lifestyle come more in the newly ragged edges of things. We're letting go of things that many of us in the Middle Class had quite taken for granted. We're re-examining our needs. We're looking for ways to restructure our lives so that 1. We don't find ourselves in a similar mess in another ten years and 2. We can be happy in a simpler situation.

So the reason I'm writing these pieces is to give a voice to those of us in the murky middle. We're the ones who still have barely enough, who haven't been able to cross the threshold from donor to receiver quite yet, who still have Middle Class muscle memory, who want to think that everything is going to get better and not worse, but who harbor deep fears that this isn't rock bottom yet. That's the story I'm trying to tell here.

Thanks for joining me. If you find yourself without much to say in response to these posts, don't worry. It's taken me two months to reach the point where I feel like I can finally write about some of these things.

Thanks for being here.....

If you've never been in poverty, I'd like to suggest you give it a try purely as a learning experience. For one thing, and quite obviously, it helps you to understand the very real differences between need and want. But honestly? This just......well. It's like they say - it's someplace to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there. I couldn't even bring myself to say it's a nice place. It's not.

I keep hoping that we're just visitors here. Let me clarify - I'm not talking Third World Poverty. I'm not even referring to the long-term, pre-existing condition of poverty that many people have struggled with either all their lives, or worse, for generations. Let's see, there must be a word for it. Has some clever person coined a phrase for it yet? It's rather like being expelled from the Eden that was the American Middle Class. We took a long, bumpy road full of warning signs to get here, but, sugar, we have arrived.

Now the classic and simple definition of poverty is: /n/ the condition of having little or no money, goods, or means of support; condition of being poor; indigence.

(Looks around the four bedroom/three bath split level in a working class subdivision and scratches her head....)

Okay, maybe we're just dipping our toe into the pool of poverty, but we're much too close for comfort and it would be a breeze for anything to shove us face first and fully clothed smack dab into the deep end.

Now we find ourselves on the fringes. We've become those people you hear about. We've spent most of our adult lives living one paycheck away from disaster. And then bam! That one paycheck went away. Now we're struggling to put food on the table and gas in the tank so that MathMan can get to his jobs (Yes, jobs. He's coaching now, too.). We're currently discussing all sorts of ways to cut back further, squeezing the turnip just a bit harder, and adjusting our family's lifestyle to accommodate our role as the New Poor.

I'm still grasping for the good things here. While I was raised by parents who remembered the Great Depression, I am product enough of the prosperous times to not have learned the lessons of the past. In trying to protect us from knowing the humiliating poverty in which they grew up, my parents neglected to let us have many opportunities for self-denial or restraint. They were hardly extravagant, but we lived comfortably enough. Sure, we heard the word no. My family was far from wealthy. We had things, but they were second best kinds of things. The swimming pool was above ground, not inground. Our friends went to Clearwater Beach while we went to Opryland. We got the Coleco instead of the Atari and the cars we drove were always used and so on.

We were rarely, if ever, deprived in any real sense of the word. Except, our parents didn't talk to us about money or money management. In that regard, we were grossly let down, as were many of our peers, I suspect.

Today, as my family navigates its way through our financial challenges, I hope that we will do right by our kids and teach them how to avoid the mistakes we made. Because, don't get me wrong, we made many many mistakes over the years. We tripped on through our days assuming that there would be a brighter future. We counted on pay raises, increased property values, and ongoing employment. We envisioned the classic American Dream of work hard, keep your nose clean, do good and all will be okay. Except that doesn't begin to compare to the trouble you invite when you begin adulthood with student loans, have more kids than you can afford, take too many risks (or not enough maybe?) in the workplace and live not extravagantly, but far enough beyond your means so that you leave no cushion for the lean times.

I know that some of you have known real poverty, First World or otherwise. I know that many of you learned the lessons to be frugal and to save. Others of you either absorbed this knowledge, despite your own relatively comfortable upbringings or you possessed a sense of natural frugality. I know that among you, there are some who have never known a day's want and you never will. Each of us carry our own experiences and, hopefully, we can both cope with ours and understand and appreciate, to some degree, the experiences of that person over there.

What we take away from our experiences and how we use the knowledge is subject to the whims and foibles of we humans, but there's no denying the fact that some scrap of something is transferred to us. This little trip into poverty has shown me something that I hadn't really quite grasped until I experienced it.

To live with the barrage of reminders that you're lacking something (even if you've never had it, the world via peers and school and television will let you know you're missing something) is crazy stressful. I can feel it. Instead of a sense of happy reunion when the kids arrive home from school, I feel dread. They're going to be hungry and I've got to make sure they don't eat up all the items I'm saving for their lunches tomorrow. I know that Sophia is going to ask me again for the five dollars for the chorus pizza dinner and point out that the D.A.R.E. program tee shirt money is due on Friday. Nathan won't stop growing and his one pair of jeans are now two inches too short. "Let's just hang on a bit longer. It'll be shorts season soon."

I try to imagine what it must be like to live with this all the time. It's exhausting. It's frustrating. It is exactly what it's called in some circles - grinding. It wears you down. It's not easy to live here and not be affected by all kinds of expectations. The kids have pretty much learned to stop asking for things. Nevertheless, there are things they need, not just want. That's when it goes from being an opportunity to learn to outright frustration for all involved. They feel like they've learned the difference between need and want and you're rewarding them with just another reminder that "we can't afford it right now." I feel like a failure.

(I'll be writing about how schools don't make things easy for the poor or the new poor in a later post.)

Over the last few weeks, the best I can do is find those genuine teachable moments and voice the very real hope that we are just visitors here in the poverty place. I remind them that while we're here, we should stop and feel. Let's remember what this feels like. If and when we come out the other side, it's important that we don't forget this. We must remember. I want the chance and comfort to forget, but I want to remember because in remembering we'll know that it's better to deny ourselves that tiny extravagance so that we can set aside a bit of money for safekeeping. More importantly, though, I think it will help us to understand what it's like for so many who would trade us for even a day to have what we have now, while we feel like we're doing without.

I'm not the most deep thinking person, but I can tell you that I'm working to find meaning in all this. Maybe it's to keep from completely despairing. Maybe it's a distraction from that creeping fear that this isn't quite so temporary. Whatever it is, I know that I have to believe that we're just visitors here. That's why I'm sending postcards like this one to myself.

Don't wish you were here.....


  1. Please note: not all posts will be so depressing. Just wait until I write about the grocery store checkout follies!

  2. Lisa? This is brilliant and beautifully touching and truthful (dare I imagine, painful?) writing. I care about you and all the inhabitants of Golden Manor without having ever met you IRL. I read and feel and know your reality,and you make me care. And feel your pain...and hope and faith, too.

  3. I would say that I could have written this, but I couldn't have because you're a much better writer, so there!

    But seriously, I am right there with you -- without the added stress of raising children. Speaking of which, it sounds like you are giving your kids a much better future as far as their understanding of the importance of being fully prepared for the financial foibles that lay ahead -- much better than our parents who, god bless them, just wanted to protect us from what they lived through.

  4. It's all just a big, fat house of cards isn't it? And when one of the supporting cards gets yanked, well, then th whole thing is f*cked.

    You are a strong woman, Lisa, getting stronger every day. And that's what your kids are gonna get out of this.

    hey, isn't tomorrow TMI thursday? woohoo!

  5. As always, I am so touched by your honesty and openness. That honesty and self-exploration and seeking for meaning in the midst of difficulty is an incredible inheritance that you are giving your children. I know trust fund babies that never got the gifts that come from having parents like you and Mathman.

  6. Lisa, this is a very valuable - shall I call it a service? - you are doing for your readers, including myself. I think many of us have been in the same situation as you, just assuming all would go on as before and things will just keep getting better. America as a whole has had a wakeup call during this past year or so and unfortunately that means there are a lot of individual Americans who are feeling it personally. I'll be looking forward to reading what you have to say about the schools. We don't have kids but from what I hear from my friends who do, schools are a lot different from when I was a kid. My parents hardly ever had to shell out any money for school-related activities or things like that. Not so anymore.

    BTW, did you read the Barbara Ehrenreich book, "Nickeled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America"? Fascinating journalism - she went "under cover" for a year or so as a minimum wage worker and wrote about it.

  7. I figured out many years ago that the media didn't have a clue how most people live. When they talk on the morning news shows about how a blouse or other article of clothing is three figures and they say it is cheap and affordable. Or when they say to save money, brown bag your lunch one day a week, what about those that brown day everyday??

    Now, I don't know where to go with my comment because of your restrictions, so TaTa.

  8. When I was unemployed and just beginning to worry about money, I remember thinking that this new frugality is news now only because middle class people are affected. Sad but true. This is a great piece, keep it up.

  9. Argh. D.A.R.E. That's definitely one thing you can cross off the list of things that suck money out of your wallet. Study after study has shown the DARE programs don't work -- kids who have gone through DARE use more dope than kids who haven't.

    But that's a digression.

    Hang in there. As long as you haven't started eyeballing the cats and thinking about adapting a hasenpfeffer recipe you're doing okay.

  10. Lisa, I'm sure that of all the posts I've read by you this one is my favorite. I think that North America would benefit from the lessons you have shared with us--lessons inherent in your experience. I spend a portion of my week involved with people without homes and food, just so I won't forget. And often I find in them a reserve of strength that astounds and humbles me. I found that here in this post, and I thank you.

  11. Don't hang in there unless you have a tire swing, it's going to be okay after the third glass of wine and instead of finding a job, sell weed. How's that?

    Just make sure you have enough to pay the internets bill 'cause we need to read your blog. Remember, you're here to entertain us.

  12. I don't think this is depressing. I think you're like Mack in "Yertle the Turtle". Everyone on that bottom of the stack of turtles was uncomfortable, yet no one spoke up.

    You're just putting a voice to what a lot of people are experiencing, but are too embarrassed to talk about.

  13. I just returned to work after two months of buying gas and groceries on a (now overdue) credit card, only to find that my "crew" is lobbying my employer to fire me. So I'm Grokin' your financial grief.

    "Hang in there" seems to imply an expectation of relief just around the corner, so instead I'll say, "Adapt, adjust and accommodate." That way when things improve you'll be ahead if the game, and if they don't, you'll be good with that too.


  14. What giggles said. This is really a well written post. I wonder if there is somewhere out there that pays where you can write this for a larger audience.

  15. Or maybe a nonfiction book? I'm serious.

  16. The husband did a 6 month stint of unemployment in 2009.
    Scared the hell out of me. Biggest fear for me was the idea of losing the house.
    We hunkered down & rode the wave.

    If you have access to health insurance, make sure you use it.... glasses, dental, whatever check ups you need, because if you hit harder times, you want to have used whatever you could.

    I know you did not want advice, just sayin' we've been there & done that not that long ago.

    Now that we are heading into tax season, I am glad the husband let them take taxes out of the unemployment $. Damn! They even hit you up for $ you don't have.

  17. I agree, I think you've got a book here. How many Americans are going thru the same thing as you? Do it....

  18. I have lived through portions of your post over the years, little by little.

    Thank you for your honesty, your clarity - and your willingness to be so open with your situation.

    I don't know if they pay or not, but I bet the people at Wise Bread would like to see your take on things.

    It may be worth a shot.

  19. This world would be a much kinder place if everyone had a time (preferably early in life) when they had to live on ramen for weeks at a time.

    The loss of the middle class will be the undoing of this nation.

  20. You're too graceful a person to mention this free fall the American middle class is currently suffering has been engineered by those in power. The financial service industry is a contradiction in terms and the government is a wholly owned subsidiary of big business. We all understand the official unemployment numbers have nothing to do with the reality of the chronically un/under-employed. When you live in a police state the only good jobs are with the police. Everything else has been shipped out. Sorry, I get a bit depressed sometimes too. Your post is wonderful.

  21. We have two close friends who have long (more than 10 years) experienced the kind of "poverty" you describe -- or something close to it. I can't help but notice how much more mature their children are about "making do," working for themselves, and understanding that hackneyed truth: that money really does not grow on trees. I truly believe that there is always a silver lining to things.

    There is one thing that you have more of right now and that is TIME. Your old way of life (all of that commuting!) was so stressful. I know that won't put Jake in new jeans, though . . .

    I do hope the right compromise on time and money comes along.

  22. I just read Randal's comment. Have you ever seen that show Weeds?
    I wouldn't recommend getting into the drugs business, but the show IS hilarious. (In fact, I was watching some of Season 5 earlier today. We got the DVD when we were in NY last week.)

  23. There's a lot to be said about enjoying the simple pleasures and slowing down. The lingering over the morning cup of coffee, accomplishing things on the long-stalled To Do list; there's some satisfaction in all of that. I've been surprised by how fast the days actually go past.

    I'm about one year into being unemployed myself, so your words have a ring of authenticity, let me tell you.

    I know you didn't ask for suggestions, but I'm a bossy dude: make the world a better place. I'm writing grants for non-profit organizations. The money is out there, the need has never been greater, and as a writer (and you are one, Lisa, you truly are) this is a great use of your skills.

    Give it a thought.



  24. You're in very good and eclectic company, Lisa.

  25. I understand, because before I won my SSDI appeal, I made monthly decisions between food and medicine for years.

    On the job front, have you considered a position intimidating attack dogs? :-)

  26. in the big book of my life, this will be known as the winter of eating potatoes and drinking tea. it's not so bad and I'm still having a great time, making people laugh, making myself laugh, telling stories of the crazy years. of course you having children to raise is a huge difference, but there are similarities. your writing is a gift that is valued by many in many ways that have nothing to do with money. thanks Lisa. and having more time to count your blessings is the greatest gift of all.


And then you say....

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